Cottonwood County, Minnesota

© 1996 Robert A. Clouse, Ph.D.

In the midst of a vast prairie in southwestern Minnesota massive ridges of very ancient rock rise up to lie just below the surface of the ground. On this watershed divide, among the tall grass, there are a few places where the underlying rock breaks through to the surface. Buried for millennia, the stone preserves evidence of ancient watercourses in the rippled surfaces of sand that were slowly solidified by heat and pressure. Gradually thrust to the surface and rough-polished by glacial ice, a "canvas" was created that became a medium for the signs and symbols of ancient American Indians. Imprinted in this scoured rock face are fleeting images that bear testimony to the generations of earlier inhabitants of this land. These forms are found carved in a score of locations, however one of these places surpasses all the rest by virtue of the abundance and diversity present there. This place is today known as the Jeffers Petroglyphs.

Painting and engraving of rock are some of the oldest surviving forms of human expression.. This expression is a worldwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of sites on six continents. The images in different regions are distinctive with characteristic styles, subjects, and methods of execution. Rock art, a generic term used by researchers that is applied to rock engravings and rock paintings and drawings, is broadly described in two categories: 1) rock paintings and drawings, jointly referred to as pictographs; and 2) rock engravings, often referred to as petroglyphs. Drawings were inscribed or chalked onto rock while paintings were made by applying wet pigments. Pictographs, which were produced by an additive process, survive today in caves, rock shelters, or exposed rock surfaces where the images are partly protected from weathering. Petroglyphs were created on rock surfaces by a subtractive process; the rock may be pecked, hammered, or abraded. Images surviving at the Jeffers site were all created using a pecking method to form both outline and infilled figures.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs site contains over 2000 images carved in a bedrock outcrop of Sioux Quartzite in southwestern Minnesota. This 2,500 foot sloping rock surface, exposed near the crest of a high ridge, contains images of humans, animals, tools, and unidentifiable shapes carved by ancient Native Americans. The glyphs are not evenly distributed over the exposed rock surface and appear to reflect eposidic use of the site over as much as 5,000 years. Photographs of a few of the Jeffers images are included here as an indication of the range of variability present at the site.

The image of the "Thunder Being" or Thunderbird is a relatively rare one at the Jeffers site, appearing only 3 times. The multi-jointed wings in this glyph correspond to ethnographic descriptions from Dakota Indians recorded during the late nineteenth century.

Horned figures have frequently been interpreted by rock art researchers as representations of shamen. However, warrior societies among various Plains Indians cultures were also known to wear such headdresses. Research currently being conducted at the site by the author is addressing spatial relationships to assist in better understanding the meaning of various glyph groupings and individual images.

The glyph thought to represent a turtle, an animal sacred to many American Indian groups, may reflect a relationship to the underworld. Its representation here may indicate a connection between the rock outcrop and the "below surface world."

During the last century rock art was viewed as a curiosity or relic of a "primitive people." Today these images are understood and valued as a spiritual or religious expression of the totality of the human condition. They have social and religious value to their creators and therefore become a part of the values of society in general. These images have historic value by providing direct evidence of cultural development in that they are a product of different traditions and spiritual achievements of the past.

Famous petroglyph and pictograph sites have been recorded all over the world. The North American continent contains one of the most diverse and culturally significant bodies of paintings and engravings to be found anywhere in the world.

Minnesotans have a long tradition of studying and preserving our past because in it we visualize a significance for ourselves and impart a vision for our future. Today the Minnesota Historical Society is working to preserve this and other sites and objects because they have a heritage or cultural value. The traditions preserved at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site are integral elements of the personality of the people of the world. In that spirit they are a tangible expression that symbolizes humanity's journey through time.